Like many, I listened the other day to Barack Obama talking about the Russian military intervention in Syria. In his talk the American president criticized Vladimir Putin’s refusal to distinguish between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Syria’s moderate opposition, regarding the Russian president’s escalation a “recipe for disaster”.
Truly interesting was the way Obama was speaking, and his cold analytical expose which was more like a lecture in a post-graduate seminar at Harvard than a speech made by the leader of a “superpower”, who is supposed to have a proper strategy in one of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.
Obama sounded like an academic analyst who is quite good at diagnosis but astoundingly disinterested in suggesting a treatment; and faced with Russian military presence in an acute and multi-faceted crisis like the Syrian crisis, he looked as if he was not preparing any practical reaction.
A presidential tale
Obama’s lengthy and pointless expose reminded me of an anecdote I had heard from my late grandfather (May God bless his soul) about an incident that took place in pre-independence Lebanon. Then, there was an intense presidential election campaign between the two foremost Maronite Christian leaders: “Sheikh” Bechara El-Khoury of the Constitutional Bloc, and Emile Edde of the National Bloc; both of whom served as president at different times.
In the past few days, as president Obama was busy diagnosing, lecturing and analyzing, official sources in Moscow were talking about a four-month campaign in Syria!Eyad Abu Shakra
In those good old days, unlike today, Lebanon actually had a president and presidential elections. Politicians and chieftains of those bygone days used to cooperate, socialize and respect one another.
The late prime minister Riad Al-Solh, one of Lebanon’s most capable, charismatic and wittiest leaders, took charge of the campaign of “Sheikh” Bechara, his ally and friend; and when he realized that the outcome could be decided by one or two votes in the Parliament, he mobilized his team and tried to secure any potentially winnable vote.
Soon enough Al-Solh was told that Elias T. Skaf, popular leader and MP of Zahle (Lebanon’s largest Christian town) was still uncommitted, so he dispatched to him one of his assistants who was both a fellow MP and a personal friend of Skaf.
The emissary, whose name was Amine, immediately left for Zahle to meet with Skaf; and after a sojourn of a few hours returned to Beirut to report back to Solh. At Solh’s house all the Constitutional Bloc’s campaign machine was anxiously waiting, led by the host who rushed to meet and ask him about the outcome.
“Yes, I met Elias Bey” Amine replied. “I told him how great and patriotic ‘Sheikh’ Bechara is, and how much we need him as president. I added that he is also a reliable friend and a magnanimous leader, who knows no fear in defense of what he believes to be right”.
Solh interjected “Bless you, Amine Bey, and then what?”
Amine returned to his “Obamaesque” narrative and continued: “I told him too that ‘Sheikh’ Bechara also enjoys great respect in the Arab countries and with the great international powers; in addition to his vast popularity within Lebanon, its every region and religious community.” Again Solh had to stop him, by thanking him and gently prodding him to come up with the much hoped for reply.
Unperturbed, Amine went on: “I then told Elias Bey that ‘Sheikh’ Bechara is loyal and never forgets those who stand with him. And he is also a man of experience, as well as a legal authority …”
Highly frustrated, Solh could take no more, so he cut him short by saying: “My dear Amine Bey all this is fine, but what I really want to know is what Elias Bey said.” To this the emissary replied: “Well, he said that he had already given a pledge to Edde that he would support him, and he won’t break his pledge!”
With a bitter smile Solh looked at those present and said “Well, that’s it then. Let’s go and congratulate Emile Edde!”
‘Know nothing, do nothing’
This is exactly what is happening to Syria now between Obama’s eloquent speeches and impressive analysis for more than four years; and Putin’s actions including, Security Council’s vetoes, arms supplies to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, a nuclear alliance with Iran, and now an active involvement of the Russian air force in supporting Assad’s regime and Iran’s militias against Syria’s moderate opposition.
Even Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, said in an interview that “initial Ministry of Defense intelligence suggested only one in 20 Russian airstrikes (in Syria) so far were targeting ISIS”.
He added “We’re analyzing where the strikes are going every morning…the vast majority are not against ISIS at all”, and talked of civilian casualties.
Furthermore, Moscow has said openly it is liaising with the “legitimate” regime’s army, and exchanging operational data with it. This comes, of course, after Putin’s saying that “there is no difference between ISIS and any armed Syrian opposition groups”.
In the past few days, as president Obama was busy diagnosing, lecturing and analyzing, official sources in Moscow were talking about a four-month campaign in Syria!
Sure there are those who continue to insist that Washington indeed has a strategy but is still waiting for the right time to announce and implement it. I have also heard that Washington is actually intentionally pushing Moscow into a quagmire in the Middle East which will be a “second Afghanistan” this time round for Putin.
Both points may be true, simply because the current “know nothing, do nothing” policy is too ludicrous to believe.
If an example is ever needed, go no further than what Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Senate armed services committee that the $500 million effort to train Syrian forces against ISIS has resulted in only “four or five” fighters actively battling the terrorist group.
Not far behind, in terms of “incredulity,” is president Obama’s “discovery” that had it not been for Iranian and Russian support, Assad would have been toppled.
After more than four and a half years of bloodshed in Syria, it is sad that Obama feels he has to say this, more so, after just agreeing a nuclear deal with Iran.
As for the alleged “quagmire” Washington has in store for Putin in the shape of a “second Afghanistan”, let us only recall what the “first Afghanistan” produced for America and the world!
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 9 2015.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.